Getting the most out of water management indicators

Using meaningful indicators to link science and decision-making in water management

Sustainable river basin management is often defined as the ‘coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources to maximise economic and social welfare in an equitable manner, without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems’[1].

This definition highlights the many factors that decision makers must consider when putting the principles of integrated water resources management (IWRM) into action. It also places emphasis on the various dimensions of water use that should be managed, and thus reflected in basin management plans, baseline assessments and resource monitoring programs.

‘Coordinating the management of resources across users and sectors can be a daunting task. However, well-designed indicator frameworks and indicators can help structure and synthesise the key information necessary for such assessments.’

First things first …

What are indicators?
‘An Indicator can be any quantitative or qualitative measure that is used to assess the state of a process, system or entity or its performance relative to a benchmark. Indicators identify relative positions to facilitate comparison and, if measured over time, help identify trends and assess the progress of certain interventions, or, on the contrary, inaction.’

Why are indicators important in water management?

Indicators are widely used in water resources management and planning for a variety of purposes. Quantitative and qualitative indicators have been used to organise relevant water resource information, track progress of key variables over time and ensure compliance with various standards, such as those of water quality, ecosystem health and economic performance of water utilities.

By distilling key data and trends to a manageable amount of information, indicators help bridge the gap between science and policy, and influence decision makers who establish the practices and policies that affect water resources planning and management.

Indicator frameworks in turn provide a way to identify, categorise and organise the factors deemed most relevant to understanding the state of water resources in a basin. A framework offers definitions of variables and highlights important relationships among these variables. In short, it provides a roadmap for selecting indicators that are fit for purpose and cover the necessary aspects of water resources management and development.

Key things to know when selecting indicators for water management

UN Environment–DHI Centre (UNEP-DHI), together with a number of experienced partners (WWF-US, Conservation International, Luc Hoffmann Institute and The University of Maryland), have put together a guide to help navigate the increasing ‘jungle of indicators’ and help practitioners better understand the necessary steps to meaningful indicator use for improved water resources management.

The guide provides an overview of the best practices behind the design of indicator frameworks and indicator quality evaluation. It also covers crucial processes surrounding the selection and use of indicators, such as stakeholder involvement, value definition and communication of indicator results to decision makers and other stakeholders. Special attention is given to decision-making management contexts that have proved to be particularly challenging in basin-level resource management. These include management of shared resources in transboundary basins.

A number of basins have shared their experiences of using indicators for basin management and development, and these are also captured in the guide.

Get your copy of the guide here.

[1]Source: Global Water Partnership (GWP).


About the authors

UN Environment–DHI Centre: Maija Bertule and Peter Koefoed Bjørnsen
World Wildlife Fund-US: Sarah Freeman and Jorge Escurra
Conservation International: Derek Vollmer
Luc Hoffmann Institute: Louise Gallagher
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science: Simon Costanzo and Heath Kelsey.

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